Science at the Creation Museum

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we came across a recent article in Scientific American in which an evolution-believing science teacher journeyed to Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum outside of Kentucky.

Image Source: Answers in Genesis Creation Museum

Image Source: Answers in Genesis Creation Museum

For folks like me and the author Jacob Tanenbaum, the scientific claims of the museum are impossible to accept.  A science teacher, Tanenbaum recoiled at the misleading scientific claims made by the museum.  “What disturbed me most,” Tanenbaum reported,

“was the theme . . . that the differences between biblical literalists and mainstream scientists are minor. They are not minor; they are poles apart. This is not to say that science and religion are incompatible; many scientists believe in some kind of higher power, and many religious people accept the idea of evolution. Still, a literal interpretation of Genesis cannot be reconciled with modern science.”

Fair enough.  During my trip to the Creation Museum, though, what struck me most powerfully was simply how plausible it all seemed.  For those who did not set out to debunk the information, the museum seemed just as authoritative as Chicago’s Field Museum or any other natural-history museum.

But what Tanenbaum wrote makes sense: the Creation Museum presents a misleading picture of the differences between creation science and mainstream science.

My beef with Tanenbaum is with his own misleading conclusion.  The problem with such creation science education, Tanenbaum argues, is “that 40 percent of the American electorate seems to have forgotten what science is. Considering that our nation put a man on the moon and invented the airplane and the Internet, this development is extraordinary.”

Tanenbaum may be a gifted teacher of mainstream science, but this conclusion suggests that he is not deeply versed in the culture of creation science that he condemns.  For those of us who want to understand creationism, we need to get beyond this naive assumption that creationists don’t know what science is, or that they are somehow hypocritical in their use of technology.

As I argued in a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, simple ignorance does not explain American creationism.  Many creationists have studied mainstream science.  In many cases, such as that of leading creation science author Henry Morris, they have earned advanced technical degrees.  And, beyond such stand-out leaders such as Morris, many rank-and-file creationists have extensive science educations.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer discovered in their National-Science-Foundation-funded study of high-school biology teachers, of those teachers who espoused a belief in young-earth creationism (i.e., the Creation-Museum type of creationism), fully 55% had earned college degrees in science.   Furthermore, Berkman and Plutzer’s review of other such surveys led them to the following conclusion: “the overall evidence suggests that the high support for creationism in the classroom cannot be attributed primarily, or even substantially, to overall scientific illiteracy in the United States” (pg. 52).

Also, as creationists often remind themselves and their evolutionist foes, belief in evolution is not necessary for sophisticated engineering.  Dobzhansky’s claim that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution may be true, but that would not stop creationists from traveling to the moon, perfecting airplanes, or inventing the internet.

In the end, I think it makes a big difference whether Americans with creationist beliefs have “forgotten what science is” or if they have a distinctly different definition of science.  Building an anti-creationist argument on the foundation that creationism disables technical education, as does Tanenbaum and other prominent pro-science voices such as Bill Nye, is both a false claim and poor strategy.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this is not a brief for creationism.  However, if those of us, like me, Bill Nye, and Jacob Tanenbaum–who stand outside the borders of creationism looking in–if we really want to understand creationism, we must abandon our own naive assumptions about the meanings of that creationist belief.

What Do I Tell Creationist Students About Evolution?

John Horgan asks a key question today in a Scientific American blog post: What should teachers say to religious students who doubt evolution?

He asked groups of students to describe their feelings about evolution.  Of thirty-five students, twenty felt that evolution allowed religious belief.  Six said that science made religious explanations unnecessary.  Nine said they rejected evolution due to their religious beliefs.

It sounds to me that his students reflect the beliefs of Americans as a whole.

Horgan reflects,

“I feel a bit queasy, I admit, challenging their faith, from which some of them derive great comfort. Part of me agrees with one student who wrote: ‘Each individual is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs… Authority figures teaching America’s youth should not be permitted to say certain things such as any religion being simply “wrong” due to a certain scientific explanation.’ On the other hand, if I don’t prod these young people into questioning their most cherished beliefs, I’m not doing my job, am I?”

This short paragraph sums up the toughest dilemma for those who want to teach evolution.  In no other case would we say that a student’s background should be belittled or dismissed.  In no other case would caring teachers suggest that they wanted students to reject their family backgrounds in order to fit in to the modern world.

But in the case of evolution, as Horgan laments, teachers seem to be stuck precisely in that position.  If teachers encourage students to remain true to their home cultures, teachers must allow students to ignore a fundamental premise of science.  But if teachers insist their students learn evolution, teachers must accept the role of hostile imposition against that home culture.

There are models out there.  Lee Meadows, a science educator at the University of Alabama Birmingham, has offered an inquiry model for evolution education that suggests “accommodations” for “resistant” students.  As Meadows argues in The Missing Link,

“From my view, science teachers trying to drive out students’ beliefs is just as inappropriate as teaching creationism or intelligent design.  This is true whether that intention is overt or subtle.  Public schools must embrace diversity of all kinds, including students from all religious backgrounds.”

Meadows does not suggest teaching a watered-down evolution curriculum.  Nor does he suggest that “resistant” students be allowed to pass through without really learning evolutionary concepts.  But he applies a basic truth of good teaching to evolution education.  Namely, we must start by caring about our students as people; we must first seek to understand them in all their complexities before we set out to teach them.  When we get to know our students as individuals, we can then talk to them about important ideas, many of which may be unsettling or difficult.

Is that an easy job with a single student?  No.  Even harder when we have 150 students every day.  But that’s why teachers earn the big money, after all.

Science and “The Question”

In a recent scathing review of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, science writer John Horgan argues that science will never answer “The Question.”  That is, Horgan thinks that science–the way we usually understand science–will not be able to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

For those following the creation/evolution debates, “the Question” has long been a central bone of contention between creationists and evolutionists.  Creationists have always rested their arguments on the notion that science could not explain the fundamental creation of life ex nihilo.

As Horgan insists, one does not have to be a fundamentalist anti-evolutionist to doubt the ability of science to answer such fundamental questions.  In fact, Horgan concludes his review by warning scientists that they must not overextend.  If mainstream scientists claim to be able to answer “The Question,” Horgan warns, “they become the mirror images of the religious fundamentalists they despise.”

I imagine many of those fundamentalists will take solace from the fact that prominent scientists dispute Krauss’ ex nihilo argument.  There is a vibrant tradition among anti-evolutionists of following evolution debates among scientists.  Anti-evolution writers and activists have always used such debates to demonstrate to their audiences that scientists do not agree on the science of evolution.  As Ronald L. Numbers demonstrated in Darwin Comes to America and The Creationists, anti-evolutionists have long celebrated disagreements among mainstream scientists.  My hunch is that some pundits from Fundamentalist America will cite anti-Krauss arguments as evidence that science will never be able to answer “The Question.”